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What is RSMeans & how to use it?

We’ve all heard the stories of construction projects, both large and small, running wildly over budget. Avoiding situations where construction projects have massive cost overages and inaccurate completion times is an essential function of today’s construction cost estimators.

One of the most crucial tools in a construction cost estimators toolbox is RSMeans data. Despite being in use for over 70 years, many parties responsible for construction cost estimating don’t have an understanding of what RSMeans is and how it can be used. This article will seek to provide a basic outline of RSMeans data. Specifically, we’ll be looking at what RSMeans is, what kind of data RSMeans provides, and how it can be useful for construction cost estimators. This information will prove helpful to those on the fence about whether access to RSMeans data would be beneficial to their construction cost estimating processes.

RSMeans Background

For over 70 years businesses in the construction industry have been relying on RSMeans data to assist with construction cost estimating. RSMeans data is compiled and provided by Gordian, a leading source of construction cost estimating data in the United States. But what is RSMeans? RSMeans is a database of current construction cost estimates. RSMeans includes data for nearly every facet of a construction project, including materials, labor, transportation, and storage. RSMeans data is exhaustively researched in order to ensure that the numbers provided are as accurate as possible. RSMeans researchers spend approximately 22,000 hours per year ensuring that the costs outlined in RSMeans are accurate. The accuracy of the costs provided by RSMeans is one of the primary reasons that it has both been relied on by so many for assistance with construction cost estimates, but also why RSMeans continues to be relied upon today.

The second strength of RSMeans is the scope of information that the RSMeans database provides. The RSMeans database has over 85,000 unique line items within it, meaning that if you need to find the current cost of a specific material the chances are high that it will be in the RSMeans database. The scope of RSMeans is enhanced through the incorporation of pricing based on location. As many people within the construction industry know, construction costs can vary greatly depending on location. This can be due to differences in labor prices, equipment, materials, and regulatory environments. Each of these factors can have a substantial impact on the overall cost of a construction project. The RSMeans database features the ability to adjust construction cost figures based on location. Currently, RSMeans can be localized for over 970 locations in North America. This is a boon for those in the construction industry that are bidding a project in a new or unfamiliar area. They are able to provide a more accurate estimate based on current market costs of materials, labor, and equipment in that area.

Formats of RSMeans

Since the inception of RSMeans it has been offered as a series of books. RSMeans books are generally updated on a yearly basis with current cost estimates for materials for a given year. Parties that rely on this data, like contractors, subcontractors, or estimators, can purchase a book for their specific area of construction that provides detailed estimates of current costs associated with their construction project. RSMeans offers their book series in both a physical and digital copy. Construction cost estimators may find that the print book serves as a useful companion to database access for quick references. However, the disadvantage of the print RSMeans books is that the data is current at the time of publication. Even when accounting for projected cost increases or decreases, the books will necessarily be less accurate than the online database.

However, the print RSMeans cost data books can be beneficial as a desk reference, particularly for individuals who prefer estimating by hand. For those organizations that don’t want to clutter up their desks with RSMeans catalogs, there are also e-books and CDs offered as well. The RSMeans e-book is useful as a quick and easily accessible reference. RSMeans CDs are an excellent choice for individuals or businesses that find books unwieldy, while also having the added advantage of allowing you to create custom costs lists and export your data to spreadsheets.

In addition to books and CDs, RSMeans also provides options to access their online database of construction cost estimates, which is beneficial for business or individuals that have varied construction needs or operate in different locations. The RSMeans online database is massive, giving construction cost estimators access to an unprecedented resource for determining construction costs. Containing over 85,000 items across 970 locations in North America, the RSMeans online database provides comprehensive construction cost data for nearly every facet of construction costs.

The RSMeans online portal has a couple of advantages over the hard copy version. First, customers can access the database for a flat yearly rate, giving access to a wide range of cost estimates. In contrast, the hard copy of RSMeans will cover a specific sector of the construction industry, such as concrete and masonry costs, electrical costs, or commercial renovation costs. The second advantage of the online portal is that the pricing is updated on a more regular basis because it isn’t constrained by printing deadlines. Additionally, estimates can be quickly updated based on a specific location, allowing for quick and accurate estimates in unfamiliar regions.

In addition to book, e-book, and an online database, RSMeans is also accessible through a number of software platforms. For example, Pro-Est integrates RSMeans data to drive accurate estimates based on location. Utilizing RSMeans data that has been integrated into a construction cost estimating platform is perhaps the most powerful way to use this tool. The advantages of integrated RSMeans data are numerous. First, it allows for more accurate pricing across the entire spectrum of things that are taken into account during the estimation process. Second, using RSMeans data integrated into your construction cost estimating software drives down the time it takes to produce an estimate. One of the main advantages of using construction cost estimating software is to streamline the estimating process. RSMeans further facilitates this by providing accurate construction costs for things like materials and labor directly in your software platform itself. This eliminates the need to juggle between the RSMeans database and your construction cost estimating platform, which saves time and reduces errors.

RSMeans Data

Simply put, RSMeans is the most comprehensive source of accurate construction cost estimates on the market today. RSMeans provides a wide variety of data that allows the user to quickly and easily generate an accurate cost analysis of a new project or renovation. RSMeans cost data is researched thoroughly by a team of professionals that are well-versed in assessing both current costs and projected costs for key components of construction projects. When working with RSMeans data it is important to understand how RSMeans staff are arriving at their numbers. In some instances, you may need to adjust figures up or down depending on specific conditions for your project. For example, labor costs may be lower than those determined by RSMeans cost data. This may be the case in rural areas where labor costs are lower than metropolitan areas and well below the national average. In order to illustrate this, let’s take a look at how some of the more common types of data found in RSMeans are calculated and arrived at.

Assembly vs. Unit

RSMeans provides cost estimates at both the unit or assembly level, depending on your level of access to their database. Unit prices have the advantage of giving the user greater control over their estimate, while also proving useful for unique projects. RSMeans unit costs are useful for estimates for smaller projects and renovations, giving a granular view of construction costs throughout. Costs for assemblies are intended to streamline the design development stage of a project. The assemblies construction cost data is most useful for larger projects, and can be used to quickly determine if a design is feasible or realistic. The data for assemblies in RSMeans is especially useful to compare costs between different construction types and systems. It is important to note that RSMeans data for assemblies calculates labor based off of union rates.

Material Costs

The material costs provided by RSMeans are drawn from extensive research. To determine material costs, RSMeans staff contact manufacturers, distributors, and even contractors to determine national averages for material costs. The material costs provided by RSMeans include fasteners, which are determined from manufacturers recommendations, or engineering best practices. Important things to note about the material costs provided by RSMeans are that no sales tax is included in the figure, and so the appropriate sales tax must be added to your total. Additionally, figures may need adjustment above or below the national average depending on the actual cost of materials in a given location.

Labor Costs

Labor costs are presented in two ways in the RSMeans database. Depending on what your project entails, RSMeans will provide labor costs for either union labor or non-union labor. RSMeans calculates labor costs based on the national average for construction labor costs or from union agreements. Both of these figures may need to be adjusted if the labor costs in your specific area are significantly higher or lower than the figures that RSMeans provides. RSMeans labor costs are calculated based on actual working conditions. Things like breaks, transit to and from job sites, material receiving and handling, and cleanup are all included in the RSMeans labor data. Additionally, RSMeans data assumes normal working conditions when determining productivity. Non-typical working conditions, such as in extremely high temperatures, may reduce productivity and should be accounted for accordingly.


RSMeans data for equipment includes average rental costs as well as normal operating costs. Operating costs include equipment parts that are affected by normal wear and tear, such as tires, lines, hoses, lubricants, etc. Also included in this figure are labor costs associated with repair. If the equipment is owned by the company, RSMeans includes costs associated with maintenance and storage of the equipment. It is important to note that RSMeans doesn’t include operator wages when calculating equipment costs, nor does it include costs to move equipment to and from the job site.

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Final Thoughts on RSMeans

RSMeans is a valuable tool for construction cost estimating. Regardless of whether you are a contractor, subcontractor, estimator, architect, or engineer, RSMeans data can be used to generate quick and accurate estimates based on how many square feet your project requires, necessary labor, and other aspects. Estimate data for projects of any size can be quickly drawn up. This is especially useful for large construction projects, particularly in the design decision phase where multiple different designs may be quickly compared to determine cost and feasibility.

RSMeans comes in a variety of formats that users can utilize to generate accurate cost data. Although RSMeans data was traditionally presented in books, you can now get access to a variety of electronic formats including CDs, e-books, and the RSMeans online database. While these can serve as excellent reference tools, the true power of RSMeans is realized when it is integrated into construction cost estimating software. Construction cost estimating software can help construction firms, contractors, and subcontractors by allowing them to quickly produce an accurate estimate.

By using a construction cost estimating software platform with integrated RSMeans data you will ensure that you are getting access to the most extensive database of construction costs in North America, while being secure in the knowledge that RSMeans data is exhaustively researched. Cost forecasts for materials and labor are also useful to help contractors determine the future costs of a project. At the same time, contractors that operate in multiple locations will find the location-specific data provided by RSMeans helpful. When using RSMeans data, it is important to understand how RSMeans arrives at their figures so you can determine whether adjustments to things like material or labor costs need to be made. RSMeans data doesn’t replace the job of the estimator. Rather, RSMeans data streamlines the estimation process and enables quick comparisons between bids or estimates.